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The company retreat is one of the oldest tools in the book for championing the company mission and providing employees an opportunity to bond, but there’s an art to creating a successful one. Well-executed retreats can inspire participants to forge new connections and come away energized and better prepared. Poorly planned retreats, on the other hand—think trust falls and forced PowerPoint presentations—can leave employees grousing around the water cooler.
What retreat participants really want, industry insiders say, is quality.
“One big change in retreat planning is that a lot companies are getting away from the goofier things we’ve seen in the past, like silly games and cheap trinkets,” says Dave Logan, co-founder and senior partner with the national business consulting firm CultureSync. “Conference time is becoming more collaborative.”
Logan also says more companies are recognizing that lengthy presentations, such as for those showcasing company growth, are items that can be circulated ahead of time. Conference blocks should be packed with progressive ideas and educational opportunities, as well as networking or team building activities.
“There’s enormous benefit to employees having shared experiences,” Logan says. “The research is clear on that. Especially today as more people are working virtually.”
What else should you keep in mind when planning company retreats? Local experts offer the following tips.
Regardless of its duration, the location of an event can go a long way in ensuring participant engagement.
“People are physically incapable of giving their full attention at a retreat if their desk is 10 feet away,” says Julie Laperouse,
director of training for Emergent Method. “By taking the event offsite, you send a message that says, ‘This is important, and we value giving it our full attention.’”
Laperouse often assists clients in planning local retreats that last four to eight hours, and she says she’s constantly looking for sites beyond a company’s conference room. A new environment, especially one with an interesting edge, can set the right tone and help start conversations among participants.
“I’m constantly asking, ‘Do you have a client or partner who has a cool room or maybe even a big barn or warehouse?’” says Laperouse. “You want something that’s going to shake things up.”
For weekend retreats, selecting a location that provides diverse networking activities and is within a few hours by car works best, says Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson Managing Partner Scott Hensgens. The law firm holds an annual corporate retreat for partners and associates from its Baton Rouge and New Orleans offices, usually rotating between Houston and the Gulf Coast. About 60 professionals attend the event.
“We usually try to find something between two and four hours away,” says Hensgens. “Getting people offsite goes a long way in building relationships. Everyone is so busy, and we’ve got people in two cities. You have to get people away from their comfort zones.”
NARROW THE FOCUS.
“One of the most common mistakes I see is when people try to accomplish too much,” says SSA Consultants Partner Christel Slaughter. “You just end up wearing people out.”
Slaughter cautions clients against creating an agenda packed with too many issues. Instead, she advises narrowing options and spending quality time on each.
Emergent Method founder and President Nick Speyrer says it’s also important for a retreat to align with a company’s guiding principles.
“Be sure you’re focusing on the right objectives for the retreat, and that they’re tied back to the company’s mission and strategic plan,” he says. “Don’t mistake a retreat for a real evaluation of people, processes or strategy. Those things need to be in order first.”
BALANCE CONTENT AND TEAM BUILDING.
Retreats must include high quality educational content to spark thought leadership, innovation and problem solving. Without it, participants feel like the company is wasting time and money. Strengthening relationships through shared experiences, or team building activities, is also a critical component.
“It almost doesn’t matter what the shared experience is,” says Logan. “As long as it’s not dangerous or overly silly.”
Ropes courses have long been a bread and butter example of team building, but Logan says relationships can be strengthened through all sorts of activities, from wine tasting outings to live theater.
Margaret Martin, director of client services at Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson, says the firm’s annual retreat usually includes four to six different social outings, giving participants plenty of choices.
Laperouse says she’s receiving more requests for activities that include a philanthropic component, such as casual contests to see which teams can assemble a kid’s bike fastest, then donating the bike to a local social service agency. Slaughter says she seeing cooking classes and competition emerge as a popular team building option.
Good retreat planners glean suggestions from participants, both before and after the event.
In her role as leadership development consultant with Baton Rouge General Medical Center, Regina Leingang plans quarterly leadership conferences for more than 200 hospital physicians and executives. Leingang leads a steering committee that comprises employees from several different hospital units who bring suggestions about the kinds of disciplines that need to be covered during each event.
“Having a steering committee allows us to pull ideas from the clinical side, patient satisfaction, quality and other areas,” says Leingang, who also serves as Baton Rouge chapter president for the Association of Talent Development.
Attendees complete an evaluation “scorecard” at the end of each leadership conference that influences the way the following conference will unfold.
“It’s crazy,” says Leingang. “Sometimes people feel strongest about something like food. We had a flow problem at a fajita bar recently and we heard a lot about that.”
PACK IN VALUE.
If you’re asking employees to give up their time, there should be plenty of value in a retreat agenda.
“People are more conscious, and they have the feeling that you never know what’s around the corner with the economy,” says Slaughter. “Companies are paying more attention to creating a quality agenda and being really intentional about emphasizing important things.”
Slaughter says participants need to walk away from an event with three things: Good ideas, stronger relationships and the feeling that their work is valued and appreciated.